NOTE: I wrote this over six months ago, not intending to use it as a blog entry. It's written for people who have no clue who I am, but most of you know me. Just roll with it. Also, it's pretty long, but it's so awesome that reading it will make you smart and popular, so it's totally worth it.
Do you ask for directions when you’re lost? What about if you can’t find something in a large store, such as Walmart? I’ve always been the guy who never asked for directions or approached store employees for help. Whether it was pride, fear, laziness, or a combination of all three, I’ve always disliked those types of interactions.
Now I no longer have a problem. Why? Because I can understand what they say! That might sound really weird, but a year ago I dreaded even approaching the cashier at our local grocery store. The reason was that almost no one spoke English.
My family and I were living in Kiev, Ukraine. We were advised that the language would probably be our greatest challenge, and that was very true. Since we only had about three months from first considering going until we arrived, we didn’t have time to learn the Russian beyond just a few internet lessons.
While Ukrainian is the official language, Russian is what’s spoken on the street in Kiev. When we stepped off the plane, we knew only a few words. Sadly, when we got back on a plane to come home nine-and-a-half months later, we didn’t know a whole lot more. My wife and I were both teaching full time, and between our jobs and our own kids, there just wasn’t much time to dedicate to learning the language. Not only that, but we taught at an English-speaking school, so I can’t say we were immersed in Russian.
Russian isn’t an easy language for Americans to learn. Not only does it use entirely different alphabet (Cyrillic), many of the sounds are difficult for our Anglicized tongues to articulate. Many of the missionaries we worked with in Kiev dedicate their first couple of years in the country exclusively to studying the language, and now we know why.
Week after week of passing billboards and street signs in Russian and Ukrainian, seeing television in restaurants and on the metro (subway), and trying to decipher labels on unfamiliar items in stores impressed upon me how there’s an entire culture I know very little about, and language is central to understanding that culture. There are endless stories, songs, poems, and expressions—all of them completely foreign to me. I’d pass two people having a conversation and have no idea what they were talking about. They’d laugh at jokes I didn’t understand and roll their eyes at clichés about which I knew nothing.
It can be overwhelming to consider all I don’t know about Ukrainians because I don’t speak the same language, but there are somewhere around 7,000 languages in the world. That leaves me clueless to about 6,999 of them. Would my life be more fulfilling if I understood those languages?
And what about my own language? Some people dedicate their entire lives to understanding English, while some don’t know the difference between your and you’re and seem to think the sentence “I seen him yesterday” is perfectly fine. Now, I admit English can be fairly ridiculous, so it’s easy to see how one can make mistakes. Take homonyms as an example: is it to, two or too? Should I use there, they’re or their? Still, if we don’t even understand our own language, how can we ever hope to begin understanding others?
So much of language goes beyond the basic meanings and pronunciation of words. To realize how overwhelming all this is, I don’t have to look any further than my own rural Minnesota community. Beyond the territorial differences (pop vs. soda, hotdish vs. casserole, and every Minnesotan’s favorite game, Duck, Duck, Grey Duck), there are some bizarre expressions we use across the United States.
Can’t you just picture a confused foreigner when you declare, “You’re barking up the wrong tree” or “Stop beating around the bush”? What about when you tell them you have to cut up that tree you cut down in your backyard last week?
Several years ago I worked on a golf course, and one day my co-worker and I had to stop and wait for some golfers who were coming through our work area. My co-worker was a golfer, so he watched with rapt attention as one of the golfers hit a drive. Impressed, he declared, “That dog’ll walk!” Huh? I of course was able to translate his message: “That gentleman did an excellent job of hitting the ball. The accuracy of his shot will help ensure a successful score.”
That brings up something I sometimes wonder: Who comes up with these sayings, anyway? Wouldn’t it be cool to be able to tell people you meet, “Yeah, you know the expression ‘high on the hog’? I came up with that!”
One of my friends in Kiev told me about a colleague of his from Israel who tried very hard to use American sayings, only to fall short. When he wanted a response from someone else, he’d say, “The nickel’s in your court,” and he’d often attempt to encourage others by urging them to “Take the bull from the horns.” I’m sure I’d sound just as silly if I tried to use another language’s idioms.
It’s easy to find plenty of similarities among different languages. For example, listening to one side of a typical phone conversation between two Ukrainians often sounds something like this: “Allo? Da. Dobre Dien. Da, da, da. Horosho. Da. Da, da, da. [possibly a couple more Russian words I don’t understand, and then] Da. Horosho. Da, da, da. Das vay donya.” So they pretty much said “Hello” and “Good day” before saying “yes” and “good” a lot. Then they said “goodbye.” Seems kinda weird, until you consider a Midwestern-American phone conversation: “Hello? Oh hi. How’s it goin’? Good. Uh huh. Yep. Oh yeah. Yeah. Uh huh. Yep. Okay, cool. Sounds good. Yeah. Okay, see ya later. Bye.”
While my Ukrainian friends repeatedly say da, we also say yes a lot, but in a variety of ways, usually none of them actually using the word yes. Think of a poor foreigner trying to learn our language. They think yes is all they need to know in order to answer in the affirmative, only to learn it’s only one of several words we use, and then only in more formal situations. Think about it: How often do you say yes to friends or family members?
As if all these differing languages and sayings weren’t enough, some people feel the need to make up their own languages just for fun. This is scary, but what’s scarier is that some of these have actually caught on, such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s various Elvish languages, and of course Star Trek’s Klingon. Who has time to figure out languages that some random guy just made up?
So here I am, still amazed at the wealth of languages in the world, and realizing that I know very little. I admire those who can navigate languages beyond their own. Last year I had teenage students who could converse in two to four different languages, and that was humbling. At this point I’ve got my hands full just trying to “talk good” in my own language. Uff da!
Homeschooling is one of those topics that really seems to get people riled up. I kinda feel like I might just as well write about something like abortion. Nonetheless, I’m gonna give it a try.
Right up front, I admit that we homeschool our kids. When I first met her, Kendra (my wife) was fairly negative on homeschooling, being a public school teacher and all. But over the next couple of years, she observed a few different homeschooling families, and was very impressed. The next thing I knew, she announced that she was interesting in giving it a try. By the time our firstborn was of school age, she took a leave of absence from her job to teach him at home. He’s now finishing fourth grade, and our daughter is finishing third. Kendra has since resigned as a public school teacher. Aside from the Christian school they attended in Kiev last year, our kids have been taught at home.
I was happy when Kendra got interested in homeschooling, but I’d never given it much thought myself. The first couple years I figured we might do it for a while and then send the kids to public school. But as time goes by, both of us have become increasingly dedicated to homeschooling and determined that our kids will never attend a government school.
So how can we be honest about our passion for homeschooling without offending our many friends who are public school teachers and/or send their kids to public school? That’s the tricky part, but again, I’m gonna give it a try (expressing our perspective, not offending them!!!).
It is kind of strange when two public school teachers (we have over twenty years combined experience teaching) decide not to send their kids to public school. We didn’t make the decision to homeschool because we thought public schools were terrible and we didn’t want to subject our precious babies to that. The main reason was that Kendra really wanted to do it. She had a vision and a desire. Most people seem to get this and aren’t offended. On the other hand, we both feel pretty qualified to know what goes on in public schools, from the classrooms to the hallways to the teachers’ lounge. And frankly, we’re very happy not to have our kids in that environment.
Over the years, we’ve heard plenty of arguments against homeschooling. By far the number one reason skeptics use is socialization. My initial response to this is, “If I were you, I’d be a lot more concerned about the socialization my kid is getting in the government school than the supposed lack of it for a homeschooler.” Are you aware of the social climate in the typical public school? You may want to research this.
There is a stereotype of homeschooled kids as strange Amish-like little drones who can’t interact with other humans. I used to work with a public school teacher who repeatedly referred to homeschooled kids as “social retards.” Those are his words, not mine. As is often the case with stereotypes, it has a basis in reality, but is also not entirely accurate and, in fact, quite discriminatory. I’ve observed a lot of homeschooled kids over the past five years, and I can tell you that not only are they usuallynot socially awkward, they’re very much normal. In fact, it seems to me that many homeschooled kids are better able to relate to those both younger and older than they are. I look at adults who were homeschooled and they appear to be completely well-adjusted socially. I’m sure there are exceptions, but there are also plenty of kids in public schools who aren’t well-adjusted socially, either (I’ve had a lot of those in my classes!).
I haven’t been able to figure out what makes public schools such great institutions of socialization. When in one’s adult life will they ever spend all day sitting in a room with twenty-five other people their exact age? I personally learned a lot of very negative social behaviors on the school bus and the playground (swear words and dirty jokes come to mind). I even had a kid put a knife to my throat one day at recess (this was before the days of zero tolerance for weapons). He was joking around, but I was scared. I think I would’ve been okay not being around people like that.
Another argument against homeschooling is the lack of a quality education from Mom & Dad, versus trained professionals. As experienced, licensed teachers, Kendra and I obviously are not the norm. I do know of one family that tried homeschooling and it was a disaster, so after a couple years the parents sent their kids to public school, where there was a lot of remediation. That’s the only example like that of which I’m aware. Most homeschoolers actually receive an excellent, one-on-one education that is at least as good as what they’d get in a public school. Again, you may want to research this. I once averaged 36 students in each of the classes I taught. It’s awfully hard not to have kids slip through the cracks there. As a student, I had teachers who were awful, and I worked with some teachers who were awful. But I also had and worked with some amazingly awesome teachers. Most were somewhere in between.
Finally, I’ve talked to a lot of parents who tell me something like, “I wish I could homeschool my kids, but they’d drive me crazy/I wouldn’t do a good job, etc.” My response to this is to ask you if parenting is hard work. If you’re honest (and a good parent), you’ll admit that it is. But is it worth the trouble? Hopefully again you’ll say yes. Well, homeschool is simply an extension of that. And if you feel under-qualified, there’s a ton of amazing resources out there. There are quality curriculums that make it easy to teach. There are increasingly effective online resources to help you. And, there are more and more other families homeschooling to look to for support and encouragement.
We belong to a large homeschool group, and there are a wide variety of activities every day of the week. Our kids have a lot of friends they enjoy hanging out with at these activities. Some are educational, some are athletic, some artistic, and some plain fun. Another advantage we have as homeschoolers is flexibility. If we want to take a day to do something non-academic, we can. If we’re behind on math or something, we can buckle down on that for a while. It’s great!
Our family has not only quality time, but quantity time. Relationships need both. This is a wonderful way for us to grow together as a family. It’s not always easy, but it’s very much worth it.
Finally, there’s the faith aspect. Kendra and I are followers of Jesus. That’s the most important part of who I am, and it’s my highest priority for my family. My children will not only not be nurtured in their faith in a government school, they will indeed come under attack. It’s subtle, but institutional. Religion is to be kept in church. Your faith and your education are completely separate, according to the doctrine of public schools.
Christian parents often justify sending their kids to government schools by saying that they need to be “salt and light.” I’m not sure how a little five-year-old is gonna save her school, but I do know that bad company corrupts good character. I know that adding clean water to muddy water only dirties the clean water. I remember reading what someone said about all the Christian musicians in Nashville. To paraphrase, “Nashville’s changed the Christians a lot more than the Christians have changed Nashville.” As a teacher, I wanted to be salt and light, but if I got very salty at all, I’d lose my job. I teach my children about drugs, alcohol, etc. Do they need to be in an environment that pressures them to engage in behaviors contrary to God’s Word in order to be socially well-developed?
It’s one thing to go on a “rescue mission” to save those in danger. It’s another thing altogether to send a vulnerable child on such a “mission.” Lifeguards will tell you that it’s best to save a drowning person by throwing them a floatation device, because actually going to them is a last resort, because the victim is liable to drag their rescuer down with them.
Without sounding judgmental, I do want to ask my Christian friends this question: What scriptures are you standing on as your mandate to send your kids to a secular government school? I can share a ton for my justification to homeschool my kids, and I encourage you to search the scriptures in regard to this.
Finally, I want to reiterate that, although I obviously have strong opinions about this, I have nothing against people who send their kids to public schools or to those who work in them. There’s a lot of good stuff happening there. But there’s also a lot of good stuff happening in my home every day, and for that I’m very thankful.
One of my favorite rituals is taking out the garbage. I know that’s kinda weird. Sunday nights I walk the 200 feet down our gravel driveway, pulling the black two-wheeled plastic garbage can behind me. I park it next to our mailbox at the side of the road, and often stop to take in the evening. We’re blessed to live where there are no streetlights and almost no traffic.
In summer, I look to the west and marvel at how the sky is still light so late. In winter, I often turn and trudge right back up to the house, the icy wind taking away my desire to savor my surroundings. I love to look up at the stars and moon when the sky is clear. I love walking back up the driveway beneath the canopy of trees and seeing our cozy little house perched around the corner at the top of the hill.
It was late April, 2012. I brought the garbage down and turned back up the driveway. About twenty feet into my journey I stopped, looked up at the night sky, and thought about how content I was with life. Things were going well. I felt a twinge of fear--does this mean something bad is about to happen? I grew up thinking that way, which is not a good thing.
The next day I was called into my principal’s office and informed that my contract wouldn’t be renewed the next year. That thumping sound you hear is me being thrown under the bus.
A year later, on that same late April Sunday night, I took note of the date as I brought a couple small plastic bags of garbage into the hallway of our apartment in Kiev. I crept up the half flight of stairs to the garbage chute, looking to see if anyone was sitting at the top of the next flight smoking, as was often the case. I opened the chute and stuffed in the bags, being careful not to inhale. Shuffling back to our apartment, I thought of how much I missed my garbage runs back home.
Last Sunday night I wheeled the can down once again. Twenty feet up the driveway, I froze in my tracks, realizing it was this same Sunday two years ago when I stood at the same spot and contemplated my contentment with life, while pushing down that fear of bad stuff happening. It was almost overwhelming to think about where my life has taken me these past two years. I felt thankful to be back home, and very content and happy with my life.
The big difference between last Sunday and two years ago was the lack of fear. I actually said out loud, “Thank GOD I got delivered from that job!” My life is so much better than it would’ve been had I not been thrown under the bus two years ago. Something that seemed so bad at the time turned out to be a huge blessing. Sounds a lot like Genesis 50:20.
A few days ago I went downhill skiing for the first time in my life. Although I live in a part of the world that’s frozen over at least five months out of the year, there aren’t mountains around here, so the opportunities for downhill skiing are limited.
When I was growing up, there was a ski hill in my hometown. It was called “Detroit Mountain,” which is embarrassing, because not only is it not a mountain, it’s hardly a hill. It’s more of a big bump. It closed down around twenty years ago, but a group has formed to resurrect it, and next year it’ll be back in business! But I digress.
For our skiing adventure, we went to a ski area near Alexandria, Minnesota, about two hours away. Kendra and the kids have some experience, but I always managed to avoid going. Downhill skiing is one of those things that’s always kind of scared me.
Downhill skiing has brought two of my uglier qualities to light: fear and pride. First of all, fear that I’ll run into a tree and die (I couldn’t stop thinking of Sonny Bono each time I ventured down the hill) and fear that I’ll look like a fool. That of course reveals my pride. I don’t want to look dumb or like I don’t have it all together. But there are few things that reveal how un-together one is than skidding down a sharp incline on two slabs of plastic (or whatever the skis are made of).
The fear part was made worse by an experience earlier this winter involving cross-country skis. In my younger days, I’d plod around our property on a pair of wooden skis made by my brother. They had bindings into which any boots could fit. They were functional, but nothing to bring to a race. So earlier this winter, we went cross-country skiing, and the conditions were icy, which is not good. At one point I struck off by myself, with no little kids to tie me down. I imagined flying through an Olympic course, ahead of some random Norwegian, on pace for a gold medal and world record. I was feeling pretty bold, so when I came to a big hill, I went for it. It didn’t take long for me to lose control and skid halfway down on my bottom. No harm done, and I obviously didn’t learn anything from that, because I soon came upon another drop-off. This one was shorter and not as steep as the other, so I went for it. Oh yeah, there was also a big curve at the bottom, but I felt brave, so away I went! After going about ten feet (no exaggeration), I realized I was losing control. I panicked, which involved locking my knees and becoming rigid. I soon plummeted straight off the trail and into the deep snow, my skis catching the snow and my body plunging in face first. I really don’t remember where my arms were. I felt a “snap!” where my right leg attaches to my body, and cried out in agony in spite of myself.
Thankfully, I recovered surprisingly quickly from that injury, but the memory of it kept creeping into my mind as I looked down that foreboding mountain (okay, bump) and contemplated skiing down it’s deadly face. But as scary as that was, it came in third on my scariness scale.
The scariest parts were the ski lift (“don’t look down!”) and watching some of the many elementary-age school kids who were there come rocketing down the hill, and trying not to get hit. They were supposed to go side-to-side, but instead they just flew straight down the hill with little or no control. My only falling incident was a reaction to one of those human missiles bearing down on me.
As far as pride goes, one thing that helped me cover up my insecurity was the fact that my eight-year-old daughter was scared, so I stuck with her, encouraging and “protecting” her. “It’s okay, Katja, I’ll stick with you!” Never mind that I didn’t want to go any faster than she did. As the day progressed, I became more confident, so I started to think I probably looked fairly cool while snowplowing down the easiest runs.
The Bible tells us that pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall, and just as I was getting a little puffed up, Katja decided she had enough of the big hill. So I courageously volunteered to accompany her on the bunny hill. It was here that I almost fell—twice. That was a great help in keeping my pride in check.
Oh, and that one time I did fall? As I was struggling back to my feet (again a wonderfully humbling endeavor), my 10-year-old whizzed by, casually calling out, “Hi, Dad!” Embarrassing.
So, my downhill skiing experience was full of lessons (I also learned that it’s really hard to use the restroom when wearing ski boots—at least if you need to sit down) and opportunities to overcome fear and pride.
In all, it was okay, but I don’t think I’ve found a new life-long passion.
Just like John Mellencamp (or Cougar, or Cougar Mellencamp), I was born in a small town. And just like John Denver, I thank God I’m a Country Boy. I really don’t like living “in town,” much less in a large city. I lived in Moorhead, Minnesota (Population 39,000), for a few years while attending school. I didn’t like that. I lived in St. Paul, Minnesota (population 275,000) the first couple years Kendra and I were married. That was okay, but mostly because I was a newlywed. After two years we returned to God’s Country. Finally, I lived in Kyiv, Ukraine (population who knows? Three to five million). I liked that even less.
I’m so thankful to live where I do. The air is fresh, it’s quiet, the nights are dark and stars plainly visible. Ahh…. But it has its drawbacks. One is the lack of any non-government jobs that pay a half-ways decent salary. The other is drivers, specifically small town drivers.
North Dakota is infamous for its drivers, and rightly so. We Minnesotans brag that we’re better drivers than they are, but I live only fifty miles away from the Red River, and if we’re honest with ourselves, drivers here are almost as bad as North Dakota drivers.
There are the usual offenses, such as pulling out in front of an oncoming car and then driving fifteen miles per hour below the speed limit, failing to use turn signals, and tailgating. I have to admit I sometimes don’t use my signals either, but only when there are no other cars around—gotta save on the blinkers, you know.
But one thing people around here are utterly incompetent at is using intersections that have stop signs. The concept is simple: if two cars arrive at a four-way stop at the same time, the vehicle on the left yields to the vehicle on the right.
Apparently this is too complicated for a lot of people. How many times have you pulled to a stop even a second after the person to your right, and yet they sit there? Then they wave you on? Or better yet, you each make lurching stops, seeing who’s gonna make it across first?
Many people try to circumvent these awkward situations by slowing to a crawl when they see another car approaching the stop sign at about the same time. It’s like a race to see who can get there last.
The past eight months of driving at home has caused me to make a paradigm shift in my thinking. In the past, I’ve been adamant about how awful roundabouts are, having experienced them at length while living in Europe (see my book "Kyiv Diary"!).
I now have to admit, however, that there are certain intersections where roundabouts are a good idea. For you Detroit Lakes people, a couple prime examples are the intersections of Willow Street and Roosevelt Avenue, and the dreaded Frazee Street/McKinley Avenue intersection (by Central Market and Holiday). You don’t need long to observe all the behaviors I’ve described at either of those spots.
Let it be known that I don’t want to be like the British, who think a roundabout is necessary for every single place where two roads intersect. Ukrainians wisely use a combination of roundabouts and “regular” intersections (although they don’t have uniform rules for their roundabouts, which is confusing as can be). I still prefer stops signs and traffic lights in most situations, but there are places where it’s better to herd people through like cattle, rather than trust them to remember traffic rules they learned thirty years ago in Driver’s Ed.
Drive carefully, and remember to use your blinkers!
My family and I live in the countryside between two small towns: Frazee, and Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. Most of our lives happen in Detroit Lakes, so we don’t go to Frazee very often. There’s really only one practical route from our house to Detroit Lakes: U.S. Highway 10. As you enter town, you’re greeted by the most ridiculous set of traffic lights ever installed: Kris Street.
So what makes it ridiculous, you ask? First of all, Kris Street isn’t even a street. It’s a railroad crossing, total length, oh, maybe 75 feet. That’s it. Kris “Street” links Highway 10 and Randolph Road, which runs parallel to the highway on the other side of the train tracks.
This crossing was installed a few years back when Highway 10 underwent a major realignment. The engineers who designed it obviously put safety as their number one concern. Sadly, common sense was a casualty of their actions.
A safe railroad crossing sounds great, but to date I’ve spent approximately 1,348 hours and 19 minutes waiting at the Kris Street light. The lights are set up in such a way that whenever a vehicle is given a green light to cross the tracks, all other traffic on both sides of the tracks stops. The engineers obviously didn’t trust people to yield to oncoming traffic, so they make everyone else stop.
I can understand this, considering the fact that a lot of semi trucks use this crossing (it’s the closest access to the town’s industrial park). But travelers on the highway often sit for several minutes at a time, waiting for a red light.
What’s even more maddening than waiting so long is the fact that usually there are no more than one or two vehicles that zoom across while we sit, drumming our fingers on our steering wheels, telling the lights to “Hurry up and change already!”
To make matters worse, there are many times when the lights turn and there are no vehicles whatsoever crossing the tracks. Argh! I suppose they have it set to automatically go off just in case someone’s trying to cross and the sensors don’t pick them up. I suppose motorcyclists like that, but there aren’t many of them out and about in our subzero January temps as I write this.
Finally, whenever a train is approaching, the crossing stays open for several minutes so any really long trucks can get through (they must be really long trucks!). Then, of course, the crossing closes, and the rest of us can get on our way.
But wait, there’s more! Thanks to a quirk in the programming of the lights, they suddenly turn red for highway travelers just as a train gets to the crossing. The light stays red for no more than one second—you read correctly: one second—before again turning green.
Recently, I had the opportunity to completely run that dumb red light. It felt so good. Fight the system! I’ve made up my mind that I’m not stopping for a one second red light in which no crossing traffic will be approaching. My observations tell me I’m not alone.
I know that people where I live tend to be bad drivers (I think I’ll write about that next!), but Kris Street is ridiculous. Please, highway engineers, program some common sense back into that crossing!
Now that everyone knows how I feel about Christmas music, I’ll now punish you with my Top 10 list of non-cheesy Christmas albums!
10. “Striking 12” by Groovelily. Okay, so this isn’t technically a Christmas album, but it is a holiday album, specifically New Year’s. This band is a theatrical/pop/rock trio (for lack of a better term), consisting of electric violin, keyboards, and drums. All three members share lead vocal chores, to great effect.
This live recording is a modern adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Match Girl” that is at times poignant, beautiful, and hilarious. My favorites include the haunting “It’s Coming Down,” which I used to listen to in our apartment in Kiev while watching the snow fall on winter evenings. Very cozy. I also love “Give the Drummer Some” (of course) and “Screwed Up People Make Great Art,” the title of which speaks for itself.
9. “Merry Christmas” by Mariah Carey. I can’t believe I’m putting this on here, but it’s to appease the popsters out there. If you have to listen to an album of pop Christmas music, this is the one. The reverent “Jesus Born on this Day” and “Joy to the World,” which combines the Christmas carol with the “Jeremiah was a bullfrog” song to great effect are the highlights for me.
8. “Heaven and Nature Swing” by Phil Driscoll. In case you don’t know, the best kind of Christmas music is jazzy, and this big band record is chock full of wonderful arrangements by Ralph Carmichael. Phil Driscoll is a singer and trumpet player. He can play trumpet very high and loud, but he’s not a jazz player. Also, thanks to the magic of multi-track recording, Phil is the entire trumpet section, which is weird. Still, it’s a great album, especially the extended jams on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”
7. “A Very Veggie Christmas” by the Veggie Tales crew. I’ve listened to this at least 18,000 times (thanks to my kids) and have every word memorized. It’s kind of like a TV show without visuals. Bob the Tomato is hosting a Christmas party at his house, and we get to listen in. Like most Veggies Tales stuff, it’s very funny and cute. While in Poland last year, we ate as many of the foods as possible from the “Twelve Days of Christmas” (eight Polish Christmas dishes) from this recording. Our favorite was kielbasa.
6. “Timeless Christmas” by Denver & the Mile High Orchestra. This is a mini-big band led by another singing trumpet player. I really like this band when they’re swinging, but they can’t seem to decide whether to be jazzy or to be a rock band with horns. Anyway, there are some wonderful versions of Christmas classics (including the second-best version ever of “Little Drummer Boy” ever—the best is in my #1) along with some great originals.
5. “A Christmas Festival” by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. My family had a record of this when I was growing up, and it reminds me of my childhood. I remember the cover had Mr. Fiedler dressed as Santa and holding a large sack of toys that I thought looked pretty cool. This is classy stuff!
4. “Christmastime” by Michael W. Smith. This one’s for Kendra, but I have to admit, as another “poppy” Christmas album, this is pretty good. He’s got a wide variety of material, and it has kind of a timeless quality, as opposed to flavor-of-the-month-type stuff.
3. “Chestnuts Roastin’” by Nat “King” Cole. This set of songs has been released under various names over the years, but this is the version I have. We also had a record of this growing up (under a different name), and I can picture my mom decorating the living room with this playing, so there’s a real sentimental value here. And of course, it’s the definitive version of Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song” that you’ve all heard a million times.
2. “When My Heart Finds Christmas” by Harry Connick, Jr. So far HC has released three Christmas albums, but this is the first and (in my opinion) best. It has some of the hippest swinging tunes you’ll hear on a Christmas record, along with some reverent orchestral stuff and, of course, New Orleans-inspired jams. Harry wrote several tunes, all of which are good enough to be added to the Christmas canon.
The album ends with Frank Loesser’s “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” which HC does perfectly. The problem with this song is that in the show where it originally appeared, it was sung in early spring, and the singer was hoping for a long-term relationship. Just some useless trivial for you.
1. “Oy to the World!” by the Klezmonauts. If the very idea of a Klezmer Christmas album isn’t funny enough for you, then you have no sense of humor. In case you don’t know, Klezmer is Jewish music (think “Fiddler on the Roof”). About ten years ago Kendra and I were driving around the Twin Cities doing Christmas shopping, and the Klexmonauts’ version of “Jingle Bells” came on the radio. We contacted the jazz station to ask who it was, because we were laughing out loud. Imagine that tune in a minor key, complete with a lady singing in German and a violin that at one point quotes “Rhapsody in Blue” and you might get a bit of a picture of this album.
Earlier I mentioned “Little Drummer Boy,” and this features a Klezmer/rock/surf version with some killer drum breaks. It’s a very short album, which is okay, because as cool and fun as it is, the songs all start to sound the same in short order. At any rate, this is the hippest Christmas album of all time.
There you have it! I have to give honorable mention to Natalie Cole, the Vince Guaraldi Trio (Charlie Brown), Bing Crosby, and the Concordia College Percussion Ensemble, all of whom have awesome Christmas recordings. We also own “A Toolbox Christmas,” which utilizes tools musically, which is kinda cool. Sadly, we also have “The Jingle Cats,” which consists of meows recorded in various pitches and played back to the melody of Christmas carols. It’s as horrendous as it sounds. The perfect gift for your enemies this Christmas!
Excuse me while I go listen to these (except for the Jingle Cats), and Merry Christmas!
Those of you who know me are familiar with my attitude regarding Christmas music out of season. One of my greatest pet peeves is listening to (or worse yet, being forcing to sing) Christmas music when it’s not Christmas season. Many a soul has watched with glee as I come unhinged as the result of someone singing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” in September.
Why is it such a big deal? What do I have against Christmas music? The answers are, 1) it really isn’t a big deal, but I thought it would be fun to write about it, and 2) I don’t have anything against Christmas music. The fact is, I love it. That’s precisely why I don’t like hearing it out of season.
In our home, I insist on no Christmas music until after Thanksgiving. That also goes for Christmas decorations. My reason is simple: I do enjoy all that Christmas-y stuff, but I don’t want to be tired of it by the time December 25 rolls around. Do you know that the “Twelve Days of Christmas” begin on December 25?
Yet in today’s America, the stores start putting out Christmas stuff in October, and on December 26, discarded trees already start littering boulevards. After two straight months of Christmas everything, people can’t wait to move on, and that’s sad.
I prefer to wait until after Thanksgiving, so that when Christmas comes I still enjoy hearing those songs and looking at my tree. Since we have an artificial tree, we have the luxury of leaving it up as long as we want, which at this point in our lives is stretching past mid-January. It’s depressing to take down that cozy tree and lights, knowing that there are still months of bleak winter weather ahead.
But back to the music. I love music, which is another reason why Christmas music annoys me. What I mean is, everyone and their brother feels the need to record a Christmas album. People who spend the rest of the year living like there is no God suddenly start singing about Jesus, and generally get full of holiday cheer and sentimentality.
The sad truth is that most new Christmas albums are cheesy pop drivel, sung by today’s hottest pop and country “artists.” What does the average Christmas album contribute to our civilization? Do we really need to hear Justin Bieber croon about chestnuts roasting or Taylor Swift babble about the magic of the season? Do we really need another version of “Little Drummer Boy”?
Add to this the fact that some radio stations actually brag that they play all Christmas music during this time of year, as if that’s a good thing. I avoid those stations like the plague. Why don’t we have radio stations that play only patriotic music around the Fourth of July or Easter music around Easter? Or maybe just a station that proclaims it’ll only play about twenty-five different random songs covered by several thousand singers?
I propose a law that would put limits on Christmas music. Once a store or radio station hits their quota for the day, no more holiday cheer. Of course, what crazy people do in the privacy of their own home is their business. The penalty for violating this law would be the forced listening to of a handful of non-Christmas songs that have indeed been covered by a zillion artists, such as “Brown-Eyed Girl,” “Carry On Wayward Son,” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
There would also be a quota on how many times a certain song can be recorded. There would be strict limits on the helplessly overdone songs. Sacred examples are “Joy to the World,” “Angels We Have Heard On High,” and “Silent Night.” Secular examples would be “Jingle Bells” (including quoting the melody at the end of other songs), “Winter Wonderland” and “White Christmas.”
Finally, there would be strict enforcement of the proper singing of songs. In particular, the melody of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” would be sung correctly. People now sing the notes of “everywhere” (as in “over the hills and everywhere”) wrong! It should only be sung that way the last time through! Argh! Somebody stop me!
So there you have it. I apologize if I have diminished your holiday cheer. Join me next time when I break the news to you that there is indeed no Santa Claus.
One of the greatest thrills of my childhood (besides pickles, olives and lefse—see last post) was the experience of the Snow Day. Few things can compare to the excitement of hearing Andy Lia of KDLM radio announce “No school today in Detroit Lakes.” While one might want to return to bed for more sleep, the excitement was so great that sleep would never come. It didn’t take long to don our snow gear and head outside for some fun.
I remember my mom telling the story of some boys in her grade who played a prank where one of them pretended to be the superintendent and called the radio station, informing them that school was cancelled. The radio station believed them and announced it! I guess they were caught and punished, but as a kid I admired them and wished I could do that.
When I became a teacher I again got to experience the joy of snow days. I taught two years in Burnsville, Minnesota, which is a suburb of the Twin Cities. Snow days were exceptionally rare in the “metro” area, so any late start or early dismissal was an occasion for pandemonium. One day when the weather was bad, the kids were all a-buzz at the possibility of getting out of school early.
When the principal finally came on the intercom to announce that school was releasing early, my room was empty before he’d spoken two sentences. He continued on for a minute, apparently oblivious to the fact that the building was almost empty by the time he finished his speech about an orderly dismissal.
Even as a teacher, I reveled at the possibility of a day off. Never mind the fact that at some later date that day will need to be made up, most likely when the weather is nice and everyone would rather be outside. Carpe Diem!
I think the desire for an unexpected day off is human nature. Future consequences don’t seem to matter when compared to the prospect of a day without work/school, etc. I also think this helps explain the tendency people have to overreact to weather forecasts.
If the weatherman says there’s a possibility for snow that may accumulate at a depth of 3-5 inches, people’s natural tendency to overreact turns it into a huge blizzard with a foot of snow and hurricane-force winds. When the same weatherman says light flurries may start in mid-afternoon, you can rest assured that numerous evening activities will be cancelled, whether it’s snowing by 7:00 p.m. or not.
My dad is very good at warning me about this weather and saying, “Too bad you have to go to work in this. You’ll probably have to stay there tonight, because you don’t want to drive home in that kind of weather!” Of course, he also laments one having to leave the house if it’s raining on a summer day. “Wish you didn’t have to go out in this junky weather!”
The National Weather Service hasn’t exactly helped lessen the hype with the new practice of actually naming winter storms, a la hurricanes. Is that really necessary?
People also tend to exaggerate temperatures, at least around here. I occasionally hear someone refer to 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (which is the same as -40 Celsius) as typical, though it hasn’t been that cold in this part of Minnesota since about 1996. The fact is, we usually only have a small handful of nights a year where the temperature dips below -20.
One more thing that bears mention is the practice of radio stations to announce something like “Frazee school and buses two hours late.” Never once have I heard an announcement like “Pelican Rapids schools are two hours late, but buses are on time. Bundle up, because the school is locked,” or “Lake Park/Audubon school is on time, but buses are two hours late. You’d better not be tardy!” It just seems like a waste of breath to say it like they do.
Admittedly, I find myself easily sucked in to the bad-weather excitement, even though it rarely gets as bad as it sounds. After so many disappointments, you’d think I’d learn to start taking those forecasts with a grain of salt (no road salt pun intended).
By the time I woke up, there was already the faint aroma of cooking turkey. Mom, clad in her apron, had been up for hours. The turkey sat stewing in the special turkey roaster, which spent the other 364 days of the year sitting under the west window in the bathroom. This was the roaster’s one day to shed its typical role of towel-drier and actually do that for which is was made.
Thanksgiving Day morning was always crisp and sunny in my memories. There was usually a thin layer of snow brightening up the dull browns of autumn and promising the thick blanket that was soon to come. Our black-and-white TV set was on, broadcasting the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.
My parents had already set up the extra card table (the one with the flowery cardboard surface and green metal legs), extending the kitchen table to make room for our guests: my maternal grandmother and aunt (“Grandma ‘n Auntie”). Of course, both tables were covered with tablecloths, so they looked nice for the big day.
There were name tags made from construction paper and bearing the crayon-colored images of turkeys that told us where to sit, since on this big day most of us had different places from our usual spots. The excitement rivaled that of Christmas for this little blonde-haired boy.
As dinnertime approached, the bowls of dill pickles and green olives were put out. Thus began one of the most-revered traditions in the Mohn household: Each of us five kids tried to sneak as many as possible of both items, with Mom scolding and shooing us away.
Compared to the pickles and olives, the rest of the meal just wasn’t as exciting. Don’t get me wrong—it was delicious, but the prospect of seemingly unlimited pickles and olives was thrilling almost beyond words. We ate the foods most Americans usually eat for Thanksgiving Dinner, with the Scandinavian delicacy of lefse thrown in for good measure (probably the third most exciting food on the menu).
After the meal, Mom continued working as she slaved over our dirty dishes, although this was one of the rare days when she actually got to use the dishwasher (Dad said it used too much water, so it was reserved for Sunday afternoons and holidays). Dad retired to his easy chair to watch football, while us kids put on our warm clothes and struck out for Abbey Lake to go skating. It was about a half-mile walk to the lake through fields and woods (depending on the route taken). If there was enough snow, my big brother, Danny, would pull a trailer behind the snowmobile, upon which we’d hitch a ride. Otherwise, we walked.
Upon arriving at the lake, we’d sit on frozen, half-submerged logs on the ice and put on skates that had assumed the temperature of the ice during the commute to the lake. If there was snow, there’d be shoveling to do (Danny did most of that) before we could get in any skating. We’d eventually get a hockey game going, the soft sponge puck making the game safer, even if it did make stick-handling almost impossible.
After a good workout, during which nobody’s feet actually warmed up, we’d retire to the log, pull off our half-frozen skates and strike out for home, the weak late-November sun giving the landscape that atmosphere that still reminds me of those days.
We’d return to find the dishes done (thanks, Mom!), have some pumpkin pie and ginger ale, and watch football until supper, when we’d enjoy turkey buns with mustard, potato chips, and more pickles, olives and lefse. It seemed like there was usually some special movie on TV that we’d watch while enjoying yet more of the fruit of Mom’s labors.
That night we went to sleep, happy, satisfied, and glad we didn’t have to get up for school the next day. There was also that tinge of regret, as we realized we’d eaten up all the pickles, olives and lefse, and would be left with endless turkey leftovers for days to come.
Looking back, I can find ample reason to give thanks to God for Thanksgiving itself, and the wonderful memories I have.
I've included some old blogs along with the new. Should you ever find yourself suffering from insomnia, this is the place for you! That's as poetic as I get...